Anti-bioterror programs may make U.S. more vulnerable

Published 14 November 2008

There are 14 BSL-4 labs in the United States (6 already in operation; 3 completed but not yet operational; 5 under construction), and 15,000 scientists authorized to work with deadly pathogens; critics argue that by vastly increasing the number of researchers and labs authorized to handle deadly substances, the government has made the U.S. more vulnerable to bioterror attacks

If you have a problem falling asleep at night, this story is not going to make it any easier. A special investigative report prepared for Reader’s Digest by the nonprofit ProPublica suggests that the United States is now more, rather less, vulnerable to bioterror attacks than it was seven years ago. The magazine’s Marcus Stern and Adam Piore write that Despite some $48 billion in federal spending on biodefense-including a new nationwide network of research labs and a $1 billion detection system called BioWatch operating in more than thirty cities, biodefense experts warn that the United States is still vulnerable.

Recent months saw government auditors, public health experts, and outside watchdog groups point to many failures and mistakes in the U.S. vast and growing biodefense program. In September, the Partnership for a Secure America, a bipartisan group of national-security experts, issued a report stating that the United States remains “dangerously vulnerable” to nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks. Margaret Hamburg, MD, a former New York City health commissioner and a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, warns that another anthrax attack would likely still be met with “chaos, uncertainty, and delayed and missed diagnoses.”

Stern and Piore write that “Frustrated weapons-proliferation experts complain that biodefense programs are haphazard and disorganized, spread across the Department of Homeland Security and at least 11 other departments and agencies, with no single person in charge.” Critics point out that BioWatch, for example, can not detect pathogens released indoors, underground, on planes and buses, or in most subways. Others worry that the system is not capable of providing real-time information to first responders, potentially a fatal flaw.

But these troubling findings seem like mere side notes when compared with the main concern of some scientists: that government programs have heightened the level of danger by vastly increasing the number of researchers and labs authorized to handle deadly substances,” Stern and Piore write.

The two provide these figures:

  • Number of BSL-4 in the United States: 14 (6 in operation; 3 built but not yet operational; 5 under construction)
  • Number of U.S. scientists authorized to work with deadly pathogens: 15,000
  • Federal agencies that fund, operate, or work with Biosafety Level-3 or Level-4 labs: 12